The old man gestured towards a pile of journals and offprints of scholarly articles. He told me that he would like one day to see his prose works gathered into a single book. I can't recall what I said in reply. Publishing was more expensive in those days and I couldn't think of anyone who could take on such a project, not even Canongate who had brought out a rare collection of his poetry a few years earlier, and I must have assumed that he had approached them for a selection of his life's work in folklore and literary scholarship.
It was the spring of 1988 and I was in the Edinburgh home of Norah and William Montgomerie, best known as the couple who had edited books of Scottish nursery rhymes and folk tales. Norah's black and white illustrations were in her uniquely delicate, quirky style. She must have asked me if I had children, for she presented me with a copy of The Well at the World's End
, a collection of Scottish folk tales: I have it beside me as I write. It's inscribed by its editors: 'Happy Reading! Norah M. & Bill'.
At the time I was librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library and we had decided to honour the couple with a small exhibition. Partners in life and work, they were seemingly unlike in temperament and physical presence: Norah small, lively, quick to explosive laughter, a vessel of gloriously uncontainable energies; Bill, tall, reserved, but with more than a hint of a conspiratorially mischievous smile and accompanying chuckle.
William Montgomerie (1904-1994) was a native of Parkhead, Glasgow, the son of an evangelical family; his poetry on this first phase of his life records that strict milieu with a blend of detachment and compassion. His own preoccupations would be very different – literary, scholarly, not a little cosmopolitan. Norah (1909-1998) grew up in a contrasting (and Catholic) environment in London, but her great-grandmother was Scottish and would nurture Norah's interest in songs and rhymes. Norah obtained a job with DC Thomson in Dundee, where she met Bill, a schoolteacher in the city, at a German club. In due course, it was Norah who would find a publisher for the couple's many collaborations.
Bill's interest in collecting and recording the Dundee children's songs and rhymes was not shared by a local headmaster who considered them 'just a load of nonsense'. This would set a pattern of official ignorance and obstruction from which Bill suffered at various stages of his career. He went on to gain his Edinburgh University PhD with a bibliography of Scottish ballad manuscripts, but Dundee Education Authority demoted him for taking a year, on a paltry grant, to write up his thesis.
Decades later, there is palpable vindication of Bill's efforts in Dundee. His former colleague at Edinburgh's School of Scottish Studies, Dr Margaret Bennett, has compiled a book, accompanied by a CD of Bill's recordings, Dundee Street Songs, Rhymes and Games: the William Montgomerie Collection, 1952
(Grace Note Publications, 2021). Reviewing this work in the online journal Gitanjali and Beyond
, Olga Wojtas wrote: '[Margaret Bennett] provides helpful descriptions of the games, such as the courtship song All The Boys In Our Town
, which involves a boy standing in the centre while everyone circles round him, singing, with the girls choosing a partner on his behalf. She offers fascinating insight into the genesis and development of the songs. Some have come directly from traditional songs and ballads, and she points out that the children in the Hilltown are a testimony to oral transmission'.
With this timely attention to one of the many contributions by William Montgomerie to the recording and scholarship of Scottish folk culture, we have the opportunity also to revisit the other major feature of his life's work: his poetry. This has been curiously neglected of late. His temperamental lack of pushiness, most likely, has played its part here; but the deceptively unemphatic tone of the pieces in his From Time to Time: Selected Poems
(Canongate, 1985) may have put off potential readers unable or unwilling to sense the book's latent power.
'Weill at ane blenk,' wrote the medieval Scots makar Gavin Douglas, 'slee poetry nocht tane is': subtle poetry isn't grasped all at once. Moreover, some of Montgomerie's most intriguing poems are not in this book, which was published not long after his 80th birthday. For example, there is Glasgow Street
, which has sometimes featured in anthologies of Scottish poetry, with its compressed eloquence and surely drawing on the poet's early years:
Out of this ugliness may come,
Some day, so beautiful a flower,
That men will wonder at that hour,
Remembering smoke and flowerless slum,
And ask – glimpsing the agony
Of the slaves who wrestle to be free –
'But why were all the poets dumb?'
Also omitted from the 1985 volume, but included in The Oxford Book of Scottish Verse
(1966) is an extract from Kinfauns Castle
, celebrating 'a lovely place' between Perth and Dundee. Its supple lambics, carrying sensuous imagery and a haunting word-music, are quite uncharacteristic of the Montgomerie of From Time to Time
, and – I mean this as a compliment – could easily be mistaken for the work of a poet of the 1890s: 'Because about this rockery a bee / Among the violets flying, seemed to link / All flowers along the valley to the sea, / Enmeshed, as men with men, in one wide mystery?'
However, the 1985 collection includes Elegy for William Soutar
, the tragic poet of Scots lyrics and original bairn-rhymes, who was bedridden with spondylitis for the latter part of his short life. In his diary for 1932, Soutar vividly recalls Bill's visits to him at his legendary house in Wilson Street, Perth: 'A tall, very thin chap – with a most serious cast of countenance. His eyes excellent – large and lustrous, with an open rather than an ardent look'. William Montgomerie's Elegy
contrasts the physically constrictive nature of Soutar's life with the expansiveness of his spirit, while never downplaying the former. The poem achieves a delicate balance of lament and celebration:
A narrowing of knowledge to one window
to a door swinging inward
on a man in a windless room
on a man inwardly singing
on a singing child
alone and never alone
The first line is repeated with a variation, intensifying the musicality of the poem, at the beginning of the second stanza. On the one hand, there's 'a door in the wall / swinging / bringing him friends', friends such as Bill himself, their mutual friend the poet George Bruce and (not least) Hugh MacDiarmid; on the other, the harsh reality is not shirked: William Soutar was 'sunk fourteen years in that aquarium'.
Lifeboat Disaster (April 1960)
likewise views a tragic event off the Scottish east coast with dry eyes but deep feeling. Allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice, as also the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, provide an ancient, European frame of reference. Indeed, William Montgomerie's work is constantly European, as well as Scottish, in scope. Co-existent with his many wartime elegies, and all the more eloquent for that, are signs of his love of German culture and poetry in his translations – into Scots – from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn
folk-poems (familiar to many from the settings by Gustav Mahler) and of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, also into Scots.
On many occasions his literary and folkloric interests intertwine; in an essay for Akros
magazine (October 1983) he traces Hugh MacDiarmid's poem Empty Vessel
back to a song about Jenny Nettles, her dead child, and her suicide in Falkland. Montgomerie's comparisons and contrasts of MacDiarmid's complex 'art' poem with its folkish origin are insightful and resonant.
In the Scottish Poetry Library's archive there is a photograph of a gathering to mark the 1988 exhibition of the Montgomeries' work. It's a character study. In the spring sunshine outside the library are grouped Bill and Norah with their friends the poets Norman MacCaig and George Bruce. MacCaig has just made a witty remark, at which Norah erupts with laughter. George is no stranger to humour but looks on with quiet gravitas, and Bill, facing the camera, gazes enigmatically ahead as if in deep contemplation. Comprehensive collections of the writings of William Montgomerie, in poetry and in prose, remain to be edited: is there a young scholar out there who could take up the challenge?
Dr Tom Hubbard is a Scottish poet, novelist and retired professor who has worked in France, the USA, Hungary and Ireland. His most recent publication is
'The Emerald Passport: Seamus Heaney, Literature and Europe' (Széchenyi Academy of Literature and Arts, Budapest, 2022). A selection of his essays and articles from 1982 to 2021,
'Invitation to the Voyage: Scotland, Europe and Literature', is forthcoming from Rymour Books